Aquilaria malaccensis, the Agar tree, is a product of the religious and cultural aroma of the north-eastern region that has been creating a paradigm shift. It has been a major factor in setting up a green economic stewardship in the region, to explore new dynamics of ‘access and benefit sharing’. By empowering the rights of aboriginal residents over the gross natural capital flow, it ensures rural livelihood generation. Aquilaria malaccensis isn’t just an aromatic plant – it’s a substrate of the economic prosperity drive in the north-eastern region of India.
While travelling to the eastern districts of Assam viz; Lakhimpur and Dhemaji (in close proximity to the Pasighat District, Arunachal Pradesh), I visited the areas of Seelaphatar, Dekkapam, Telam, Jonai, Pasighat, etc. Though these rural, tribal habitations are perfect for being developed into ideal natural rural eco-tourism destinations, the respective governments of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have, so far, failed to set up an infrastructure of rural eco-tourism, despite a well advanced logistics structure interlinking these regions to the cities of Guwahati, Nagaon, Tejpur, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji and Pasighat.
I am working on the rural green economics of Agar, and its role in the natural capital pool of the local tribal settlements. Aquilaria malaccensis is locally known as Xasi/Agar. Agar is used in world class perfumeries as a fixative and is highly prized by European perfumers for mixing their best grade scents. It acts as a stimulant, cardiotonic and carminative, aphrodisiac, alternative anodyne, antidiarrheal, antiasthmatic, astringent, laxative/stomachic and tonic, etc.
When I was interacting with the local agar planters, they classified the Aquilaria agallocha into ‘Jati Sanchi’ and ‘Bohla Sanchi’ varieties. ‘Bohla Sanchi’ is a quickly growing type but its yield is lesser than that of ‘Jati Sanchi’. ‘Jati Sanchi’ is preferred for commercial cultivation. A. agallocha prefers highly humid, sub-tropical climate with a rainfall of around 1800-3500 mm per annum. Agar is a sun loving tree and requires lots of sunshine for growth, attaining a height of 40 m. Agar culture is adapted to the well-drained deep sandy loam soil, or loam rich in organic matter. It can profitably be grown in the marginal soils, as well as in the shallow soils over rocky beds with cracks and crevices. Agar growing habitations show that it prefers acidic soil reactions. Mycorrhiza and other beneficial fungi, which extract their growth from rich acidic soil substrate, are responsible for Agar oil formation.
While interacting with Biren Doley, a local Agar planter from Telam, I learnt that a stem borer, Zeuzera conferta, bores into the standing Agar tree trunk and makes tunnels inside the tree trunks. Fungi enter the plant through the vertical hollow part of the zigzag tunnel inside the stem, which acts as the primary site of infection. Large volumes of wood get infected. Agar wood formation depends on the high intensity and frequency of insect infestation in the infected areas within seven to eight years after infection. Agar trees produce resins as a part of the internal immunity mechanism against the infection of Mycorrhiza and other fungal species. Such resinification of accumulated Oleoresins produces a high degree of precious Agar oil and agaru. Mr Doley says that such infection mostly occurs due to natural or mechanical injuries on the tree trunk, but it’s very localized. Oleoresins get accumulated in the affected wood in the wake of resistance against fungal infection. Later it becomes odoriferous.
Mr Doley says that there is a brown streak in the tissue in its early stages of infection. Accumulation of Oleoresins gets deeper as the infection ages and the rate of infection intensifies. As more of the Oleoresins are deposited, the colour of the infected wood gets intensified, and finally, it becomes dark black due to an increase in the concentration of accumulated oleoresins. The hollow tunneling inside the trunk of the living tree seems conducive to agaru formation.
Mr Doley says that if the fungal infection takes place when the plant is 5-6 years old, then, on average, 10 years is sufficient to access commercial agar wood or agaru in plants. In a natural forest, only 20%-25% of the A. agallocha species may get infected and become productive. Based on the rate of infection, these trees are slightly infected, moderately infected, or severely affected. Local private Agar planters apply mechanical injuries before breaking the dormancy and before the spring, through a deep slanting cut with a sharp dao (axe). Such artificial injuries provide an infection site for the stem borer, and also pushes the tree towards undergoing a stress condition. Such a stressful state facilitates the infection. The ‘Dum Type’ of product obtained from treatment for oil extraction is locally popular as ‘Ghap Mal’.
Mr Doley, while discussing the timing of collection of Agar trees for oil extraction as well as agaru, says that it is done throughout the year. But the preferred conducive period of extraction is from February to May. Extracted oil during the dormant period possesses the finest odour because the oil contains less waxy substances during that season.
Mr Doley accepts that the local planters don’t get prices for Agar oil and agaru in accordance with the national and international prices. While talking about the gross income of small scale and medium sized private planters, he roughly estimated the cost and benefit analysis of around 3000 A. agallocha species in two hectares of the farmland in 20 years’ time to be as follows:
Total expenditure for first 10 years = ₹6,74,000
Total expenditure for next 10 years = ₹1,74,000
Gross expenditure over plantation of 3000 A. agallocha Species in two hectares of land = ₹7,48,000
This expenditure is the gross expense, covering the cost of fencing, land preparation, plantation cost, sapling cost, labour cost, pesticides/compost/fertilizer cost, inoculation cost and other miscellaneous costs.
Anticipated yield and income generally comprise of two phases. As an interim yield, 40% of the selected Agar plants are harvested in the first phase. This is done with the objective of gaining interim income and reducing the density of Agar trees so that remaining 60% can grow well in the next 10 years.
Mr Doley denies getting exact market prices at the national and international levels. He provides a rough estimate of the localized rate on which the entrepreneurs have been procuring their products.
And so, the gross return is around ₹6500000, while the gross expenditure is around ₹748000, leading to a gross income of ₹5752000.
This is a rough cost and benefit sharing analysis as per the localized procurement pricing, which exhibits an exponential transition in the rural economy, within the paradigm of green economics. This is paradoxical to the fact that the aboriginal communities need a massive investment for increasing the per capita income as well as enhancing the quality of life.
Aquilaria agallocha and A. malaccensis are two major Agar species widely distributed in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and West Bengal. Assam is the heart of Agar trade in India. Hojai town of Nagaon District is the major producer of Agar wood. During 2002-03, Assam Forest Department claimed that more than 9000000 agar trees in the various age groups were enumerated in the non-forest lands/private lands. More than 9100 agar oil extraction units are working in Assam requiring around 728000 trees of agar which are supplied by agar farmers. More than 50,000 workers are involved in the agar business while another 1.5 lakh benefits from it indirectly.
Agar oil is classified according to the quality of the oils viz; Boya, Boha and Khara. National and International pricing vary from ₹500 to ₹1200 per Tola (11.62g). International market price ranges from a few dollars per kg to $30000 for top quality oil and resinous wood.
Unsustainable logging and trafficking of Agar wood from the natural forest have forced the government to bring international trade within sustainable limits. A. malaccensis and A. agallocha are, therefore, listed under critically endangered species in India under the Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES 2009) and almost extinct in the wild in Assam. Since Agar provides a natural capital flow which contributes to rural livelihoods and economic prosperity for the marginalized, the respective state governments of the north-eastern states must ensure incentives to growers for plantation of Agar wood trees on private/farm lands. The government must ensure sustainable utilization of the Agar wood including harvesting, processing, transit and trade. There is a need to develop suitable strategies to augment its natural regeneration, artificial regeneration and conservation. Addressing research and development for sustainable harvesting would propagate a better structure of agar plantation. There must be regulation over Agar wood processing and marketing for industrial units.
Agar entrepreneurs are exploiting the local agar growers. They are offering minimum procurement prices for local and private agar growers. Such a state of inequality of prices has been prevailing for over a decade or so. There are proactive agents who have been playing a key role between local/private growers and entrepreneurs, and are accessing a large share of the profit. Such middlemen should be prohibited if the government thinks of offering a transparent price policy regulatory measure for the local/private agar growers.
The Draft Policy for Sustainable Utilization of Agar Wood, 2014, from the Department of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India stipulates assigned management initiatives for the sustainable utilization of agar wood:
Aquilaria species/Agar is a driver of economic empowerment for the marginalized aboriginal/native/tribal communities in the north-eastern states of India. Such rural communities are exploring the green economic opportunities by planting agar trees in their land holdings. Such a plantation drive for Agar trees is not only working to combat climate change and pollution but is creating a conducive atmosphere for rain, as well as generating a healthy ecosystem. Agar growers are forging a dynamic revolution in the resurgence of green economics in the rural habitations of the north-eastern states of India. Exploring these alternate natural livelihoods would alleviate poverty by empowering marginalized aboriginal communities.